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Greg Veis, YouTube Hunter: Slam Dunks, Take 2!

It's Wednesday morning, two and a half days since I returned from NBA All Star Weekend in Vegas, and I've still got a plaster-cast smile on my face. This is attributable to many things: my miraculous blackjack comeback against a 70 year-old dealer named Dawn, who consistently referred to herself as The Velvet Assassin; the fine dining; the substance abuse; the fact that I saw Kevin Garnett rock some low-level breakdance moves at a club in the Venetian; the temperatures that tripled those on the east coast; and closest to our purposes, that this year's Slam Dunk contest was the most
entertaining and collegial in years.

Like most kids born after Dr. J, despite some periods of being frustrated with the ease of the dunk (compared, say, to the supreme classiness of the finger roll), I've possessed a lifelong fascination with the maneuver. Saturday afternoons, when not spent practicing medical procedures on snails, were wasted away with dunk contests on the six-foot hoop in the backyard. (The YouTube Hunter, for the record, has never been blessed with height, jumping ability, or athletic talent.) My Jordan taking off from the free throw line poster
hung across the room from my Dominique windmill one. And on and on and on. I won't bore you with further personal details, but suffice it to say that in my book, dunks = nice.

So let's kick off the Tubes with a highlight reel of this year's contest, which while unable to boast any dunks that we'll be talking about for years, was damn high entertainment:

Now, here's NBA TV's list of the Top 10 best Slam Dunk Contest dunks. It's not a bad list, although I'd futz with their rankings, which seem tainted by the recency effect. Also, be ready to hear one of the best announcer calls in memory: "We need to get him
a get well card because he's sick right now."

Lastly, I'll leave you with four of my favorite dunks. Unfortunately, three of them were executed by UNC Tar Heels, and one of them is against Duke, but there¹s no use in letting bias get in the way of beauty.

I love the Vince Carter over the French guy dunk. That gets the
jingoism going every time. Anyway, feel free to leave your favorite dunks in
the comments section. Holla!

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

Original image
iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
Original image
iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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